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German unity has become a mission again

Herbsttreffen der Medienfrauen 2017 Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
October 3, 2017

The Day of German Unity takes place as Germany struggles with internal problems in the wake of parliamentary elections. What's more, the country must also position itself internationally, writes DW's Ines Pohl.

Poeple celebrate German unification in front of the Reichstag in Berlin on October 3, 1990
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Every year on October 3, Germany celebrates the anniversary of reunification in 1990. Despite unsolved difficulties, disappointments, and unfinished projects, the public holiday is supposed to commemorate a joyous occasion. It is a day on which the world marvels at a country once responsible for atrocities and, after that, for tearing down a wall of division to emerge united as a dependable democracy and prospering economic power — and became one of the pillars of the Western world.

Read more: German reunification: Are youth in love or indifferent?

The world seems to be going off the rails

But then the parliamentary election of 2017 came along and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won almost 13 percent of the vote, putting it in third place. Since then, "We are the people," the slogan used by protesting East German citizens, has taken on a new meaning. "We are the people," they chanted in Dresden and other East German cities in 1989 and used it to bring down the unjust system that was East Germany, the GDR. "We are the people" meant: We want democracy, we want to shape the politics of the country we live in. We no longer want to be patronized or subjected to political repression.

Now that the AfD has become the first far-right, populist party to be elected to German parliament for generations, "We are the people" sounds different, as it no longer denotes the demand for democratic participation.

Read more: AfD stronghold Pasewalk: Right-wing party makes gains with those who feel forgotten and frustrated

"We are the people" is often used to insinuate that others are not; that they do not belong in this country. This message of social exclusion is directed at the refugees who have come to Germany seeking protection and a future. It is a backward-looking reaction to a world that is seemingly going off the rails, where nothing is as it once was — and never will be the same.

Millions of people fleeing

Millions of people have upped sticks as they are no longer able or willing to live in their home countries. War, epidemics, drought or floods have driven them away. Millions more will follow. They will not be easily stopped; they will demand and fight for their right to a better life. These people will not necessarily come to Europe, but migration movements and their consequences will have a noticeable impact throughout the world.

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl is DW's editor in chiefImage: DW/P. Böll

This is why today's "We are the people" — intended as a message of marginalization — is a sign of helplessness directed at politicians and the 87 percent of voters who chose not to vote for the AfD. But unlike the days of East German protest in 1989, the majority of the population does not feel included in this new definition of "the people."

Simply carrying on as though not much has happened and returning to one's own quest for personal gain and happiness do not suffice as a response to the election result. The difficult coalition negotiations prove that this is a matter of deciding what kind of country we want in the future.

Read more: Two years since Germany opened its borders to refugees: A chronology

Unity is not a given

The German poet and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote this line for his protagonist in "Faust": "What you inherit from your father must first be earned before it's yours." The line seems to have been written for this year's Day of German Unity, as unity is not a given. It is something others may have fought for, but now seems normal.

The AfD's success in the western German states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg proves once and for all that problems can't simply be attributed to differences in East or West. Now it is time to fight for a Germany that sees itself as a member of the European Union, a Germany that firmly stands by its constitution, and uses its wealth and influence responsibly to help people who are worse off.

Germany celebrates the Day of Unity. In 2017, the celebration has become more of a mission than a commemoration.

Herbsttreffen der Medienfrauen 2017 Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl
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